plagiarism is not a sin

Guest post by Natalie Swann.

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In case you missed it, there’s a wee bit of controversy going on at the moment about the evangelical celebrity pastor, Mark Driscoll, engaging in plagiarism (see this or this, for example).

As someone training in academia, it makes me feel uncomfortable.

Acknowledging your sources is important. I train my students (when I have them) to reference their work.

But I also educate them that plagiarism is not a sin. Rather, referencing is a discipline; it is a unique product of modern Western academic practice.

While many students knowingly engage in plagiarism, there are also many students who live in terror of becoming culpable of it. The terror they feel is a moral one; the fear of a “scarlet P” on a student record has curiously religious overtones.

But nowhere in Scripture is there condemnation for what we understand as plagiarism. The writers of Genesis did not footnote Babylonian creation myths.

Plagiarism is a professional misdemeanour, not a sin.

Perhaps Pastor Driscoll is at fault in not submitting to the rulers and authorities of our age. Perhaps there are real sins at work, like pride or hypocrisy.

But, please, can we stop acting like plagiarism is a sin?

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6 comments

  1. Does something have to be explicitly mentioned in Scripture to be be condemned? Regardless of that issue, surely it’s a form of stealing nonetheless…

    Having said that, part of the problem is that plagiarism is often talked about but hardly ever seen in the flesh (in my experience), so it’s a little hard to know what to do when it appears.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree that in our context, it is appropriate to fully cite your sources. Indeed, that it can even be illegal not too. Legal shifts to protect intellectual and creative property certainly mean that there is the sense of theft to plagiarism in our context.

      I suppose what troubles me is that plagiarism as we understand it in Western academia is not a constant through time or space. There are other parts of the world where attribution is not required – indeed by replicating them it can be a form of honour – and historically, for example, the work of women was often attributed to their male colleagues. Are/were Christians in these contexts stealing?

      While I’m not sure that I approve of eliding the fact of plagiarism in this article (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/december-web-only/real-problem-with-mark-driscolls-citation-errors.html#bmb=1), I think it’s moving in the right direction by calling us to assess deeper cultural issues like celebrity and the priority we place on the individual author, in light of this drama.

      I want to ask questions like: should Christians protect IP, or champion open source? Is it possible to do both?

  2. “Take […] as one’s own”
    “From Greek plagion ‘a kidnapping'”
    It sounds like the dictionary writer thinks it’s sinful. Do you have a different definition?

  3. I think part of the issue is that of ‘stealing’ – which is at the heart of plagiarism. The fact that Driscoll makes a big deal of this on his website with his own work i.e. stealing professional copyright makes his issue also one of hypocrisy.

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